Karl Schembri We are driven through a maze of dimly-lit tents in the dead of night on a bumpy dirt road in Rafah, south of Gaza.
The trip came unexpectedly while accompanied by Ahmed, a top Hamas official and former Qassam Brigades militant after a visit to his boss close to the area.
“Would you like to see the tunnels?” he asked casually as we were driving.
It was, of course, an offer that could not be refused. While everybody knows where the tunnels are here on the border with Egypt, getting inside them is something else altogether.
Bombed regularly by Israel – which argues they are used to smuggle in weapons – the tunnels under Hamas control are the only lifeline for Gazans living in the besieged strip through which all the goods, food and even cars cut into pieces are smuggled for the 1.5 million people caught here. Egyptian operators at the other end are violently hunted down by the bordering regime, and thousands of Palestinians working inside them risk their lives daily as the tunnels cave in from the bombings and the unstable ground.
As it would soon turn out, being accompanied by a Hamas guy respected in the strip made all the difference to get inside one of the around 2,000 tunnels dug here.
As the van driver and Ahmed accosts workers in one of the tents, an intense negotiation with the owners proves negative – they will not let us in.
We drive further down the road and zig-zag through some other tents until we stop at what looks like a dead end. This time the workers seem more open to the suggestion. Ahmed returns to the van.
“Come, we can go in,” he says. “And it’s OK to take pictures.”
A handful of workers greet us inside the tent. A brand new motorbike smuggled from Egypt is parked at the entrance. To the left lies a mattress where a watchman stays when the tunnel is unused. At the end of the tent, an electric motor is connected to a pulley with a long steel cable on top of a platform of sandbags with a hole in the ground around two-metres wide, just enough for a person to pass through. An intercom phone links the workers operating the pulley with those inside the pit, and a generator lies nearby in case of a power cut.
A narrow wooden swing tied to the cable hangs over the hole. The motor is switched on so that the swing is lowered enough for me to sit on it on the side of the platform. Once on it, it is slightly raised again and I am suddenly swinging over a 20-metre deep pit. Upon my signal, I start being slowly winched down, sometimes hitting the sides of the pit until I finally reach the bottom. Even though I see myself smiling in the photos later, my temper keeps swinging between nervousness and the adventurous.
Down inside, I have to crouch to start walking into the tunnel lit by light bulbs. For the first few metres, wooden planks cover the fragile top and sides of the tunnel but as it gets narrower, I can touch the earth which brushes off the wall and which so often buries tunnel workers.
Plastic pipes along the way are intended to deliver milk and oxygen in cases of collapse, but they are not very reassuring.
Metres above me is the fiercely controlled “no-man’s land”: a corridor of land patrolled by Israeli forces which cuts off the Gaza Strip from the rest of the world.
A dozen or so blue plastic tanks on the floor with their top sides cut open are connected to another cable at the entry into the tunnel. They are used to ferry the goods from the other side. Indeed, all of the Coca Cola cans in Gaza bear the scratches left after being dragged around 800 metres from Egypt.
The air is damp and I am sweating profusely. The tunnel gets even narrower and more claustrophobic as I am forced to crawl on my knees to keep on going until I decide to turn back.
Back on the swing, I shout to the men above to start winching me up again, until I’m back on the ground, I can breathe the fresh air and it feels much safer. The workers kindly offer us tea and we chat for a while as machine gun bursts can be heard from the other side of the border – probably Egyptian forces chasing the tunnel workers’ colleagues.
As we sip our last drop of tea, Ahmed sums it all up in one sentence.
“We work with death to be able to live.”